South China Sea raid

South China Sea raid
Part of Pacific Theater of World War II
Aerial black and white photo of a river with buildings on its left-hand shore. A large column of smoke is rising from near the bank of the river.
Smoke rising from Saigon after facilities and ships in the city were attacked by United States Navy aircraft on 12 January 1945
Date10–20 January 1945
South China Sea
StatusUS victory
 United States Japan
Commanders and leaders
William Halsey Jr.
John S. McCain Sr.
Hisaichi Terauchi
Casualties and losses

Aircraft losses between 3 and 25 January:

  • 98 aircraft, 136 aircrew (combat)
  • 103 aircraft, 31 aircrew (operational)[1]

Losses between 3 and 25 January:

  • 300,000 tons of shipping
  • 615 aircraft[1]
Hundreds of civilians killed and wounded

The South China Sea raid (designated Operation Gratitude) was an operation conducted by the United States Third Fleet between 10 and 20 January 1945 during the Pacific War of World War II. The raid was undertaken to support the liberation of Luzon in the Philippines, and targeted Japanese warships, supply convoys and aircraft in the region.

After attacking airfields and shipping at Formosa and Luzon, the Third Fleet entered the South China Sea during the night of 9–10 January. Aircraft flying from its aircraft carriers attacked Japanese shipping off French Indochina on 12 January, sinking 44 vessels. The fleet then sailed north and attacked Formosa again on 15 January. Further raids were conducted against Hong Kong, Canton and Hainan the next day. The Third Fleet departed the South China Sea on 20 January and, after making further attacks on Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, returned to its base on 25 January.

The Third Fleet's operations in the South China Sea were highly successful. It destroyed a large number of Japanese ships and aircraft, while losing relatively few of its own aircraft. Historians have judged the destruction of cargo vessels and oil tankers to have been the most important result of the raid, as these losses contributed to closing a supply route which was vital to the Japanese war effort. Subsequent attacks by Allied aircraft and warships forced the Japanese to cease sending ships into the South China Sea after March 1945.


Map of the western Pacific Ocean and South East Asia marked with the territory controlled by the Allies and Japanese as at January 1945
The strategic situation in the Pacific in January 1945. The red shaded area was controlled by the Allies and the remainder was controlled by Japan.

During 1941 and the first months of 1942, Japan conquered or established de facto rule over almost the entire South China Sea region. Control of the sea was vital to the Japanese economy and war effort, as it was the conduit through which essential supplies of oil and other natural resources passed from occupied Malaya, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies.[2] The situation in French Indochina was particularly complex. After a short military confrontation in September 1940 the colonial government, which was loyal to the Vichy French collaborationist regime, permitted the Japanese to use ports and airfields in northern Indochina. In July 1941 the Japanese occupied southern Indochina and established airfields as well as an important naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. The French authorities remained in place as a puppet government.[3] After the liberation of France in 1944, the colonial government sought to make contact with the new Free French government in Paris, and began preparations to stage an uprising against the Japanese.[4] The Japanese also developed plans in 1944 to forcibly disarm the French forces and formally take over Indochina, and their intelligence services rapidly learned of the French authorities' intentions.[5][4]

As the war turned against Japan, convoys of ships passing through the South China Sea frequently came under attack from Allied submarines and – by late 1944 – aircraft.[2] These attacks were guided by information gained from signals intelligence and long-range air patrols, supplemented by reports from coast watchers along the Chinese coast and other observers in Asian ports.[6][7] The United States Army Air Forces' (USAAF) Fourteenth Air Force, which was stationed in China, regularly attacked Japanese shipping in the South China Sea area. The command also made periodic attacks on Japanese-held ports in southern China and military installations in Indochina.[8][9] The Allied clandestine services undertook few activities in Indochina until the second quarter of 1945.[10][11]

While losses of oil tankers and freighters were increasingly heavy, the Japanese Government continued to order ships to make the voyage through the South China Sea. In an attempt to limit losses, convoys and individual ships took routes well away from the established sea lanes, or sailed close to the shore and operated only at night.[2]

The United States began the liberation of the Philippines on 25 October 1944, with a landing at Leyte island in the central Philippines. After a base was established at Leyte, American forces landed at Mindoro island on 13 December. This operation was conducted to secure airfields that could be used to attack Japanese shipping in the South China Sea and support the largest element of the liberation of the Philippines, a landing at Lingayen Gulf in north-western Luzon that was scheduled for 9 January 1945.[12] The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) suffered heavy losses in its attempt to attack the Allied fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 which, when combined with the losses during the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, left it unable to conduct further major battles. However, it remained capable of raiding Allied positions.[13]

During late 1944 Admiral William Halsey Jr., the commander of the United States Third Fleet, sought to conduct a raid into the South China Sea and led the development of plans for such an operation.[14] On 21 November he asked Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the head of the United States Pacific Fleet, for permission to begin the attack but was turned down.[14]